Caleb Kilian picture courtesy of MLB Pipeline
Now that spring training for minor leaguers is officially here, there are a lot of questions for the Cubs to answer. Last week, we looked at where Cristian Hernandez should start the year. Today, it’s right-handed starting pitcher Caleb Kilian.
Acquired in the Kris Bryant trade, Kilian first appeared as a Cub with the Smokies last summer. Before the wave of Covid struck the squad, Kilian had four starts where he threw 15 innings and struck out 16 with a 4.04 ERA. Coming off of that experience and his Giants tenure, the Cubs decided to have Kilian finish out the year by pitching in the Arizona Fall League.
Kilian’s first start in the league did not go so well and then the afterburners were turned on. Six weeks later, he went on to pitch six perfect innings in the championship game helping to lead the Mesa Solar Sox to a championship.
His turn in the AFL changed a lot of minds about him and put him squarely in the ascending player category.
That leads us to today’s question of where Kilian is going to start in 2022? Will it be in Tennessee or will it be in Iowa?
There’s no doubt in my mind that Kilian’s 20+ innings in the AFL advanced his development. Between the pitch lab and weight training, he has turned himself into a top 10 prospect in the system. He’s drawn rave reviews this winter on Cub prospect lists throughout the industry.
Here is what FanGraphs said of his talents as they had him in their top 10 Cubs.
While Kilian has pretty good feel for locating his secondaries, especially his upper-80s slider/cutter, none of them looked especially nasty until he flashed some plus curveballs in the Fall League championship game, during which Kilian shoved for six perfect innings on national television. Kilian looks like a high-probability innings-eating starter with some room for growth around the pitches that are still developing.
At 24, Kilian is poised to make his major league debut at some point in 2022. The question is when and not if.
For Kilian to get to Chicago, the Cubs are going to have to decide fairly quickly in the next month what experience would be best for Kilian to get to Chicago? Will it be starting the year off in Tennessee? It is an option as he only threw 78.2 innings in Double-A last year. However when you throw in another 20+ from the Arizona Fall League, which is very comparable to the talent he would see at AA, you have a moot point.
One knock against Kilian going to Iowa to start the year is that the Cubs would probably want pitchers in that rotation to be able to help the big league club at a moment’s notice. Kilian still has some developing to do. He’s already armed with a plus change up and his curve became a thing of beauty out in Arizona. However, you can’t keep him in AA forever if you want to get him ready for the major leagues. He’s going to have to face more polished hitters rather than guys with just raw talent, which is mostly what he saw in Double-A.
How Kilian does this spring out in Mesa should determine everything. What would’ve helped push Kilian up the organizational ladder would’ve been an actual end to the lockout and he could’ve gotten in a few games with the big league club against big league competition. That would have really accelerated his development and helped figure out just exactly where he should go.
That still could happen, but that window is closing very quickly.
So, if I were a betting man, I would say Iowa. If he’s out there mowing guys down in Mesa, that pretty much signals the end of his Double-A tenure.